£28 Canon 400D – A budget bargain in 2024?

There’s no doubt that Canon set fire to the digital SLR market back in 2003 with the release of the 300D and then continued to pour fuel on the flames with their successors the 350D and 400D. With the 300D Canon had managed to squeeze out a DSLR under the magical and psychological £1000 price point. The 300D sold well, but Canon made the almost inexplicable decision to cripple the camera, removing useful features which were disabled in software. The 350D solved nearly all of these niggles, dropped the price by £300 and subsequently went on to sell like hotcakes. According to Canon and the photography media in 2005/6, the 350D was apparently the biggest selling SLR of all time at that point.

Expectations were high for the 400D and upon release it both impressed and left people wanting more. On one hand, Canon took a winning formula, tweaked it with new AF, dust removal, bigger screen and resolution and left it pretty much at that. On the other, people felt they’d missed a trick in terms of ergonomics and build quality that Nikon seemed to have nailed even in their entry level bodies. Canon also appeared to have cannibalised their own camera line up – now the entry level body had more resolution than the far more expensive 30D – why should consumers pay more for less?!

Today the 350D can be had for as little as £20 and it would be difficult to argue that is anything less than a total bargain – it’s 8MP images are certainly “good enough,” can be printed up to A4 without any loss in quality and offer one of the cheapest routes into the world of RAW photography. However, when I did a retrospective review a while back, I couldn’t bring myself to recommend that anyone should buy one in todays market. Although the 350D is cheap as chips and more than usable, it is now competing with equally cut price 10, 20 and even 30D’s for the same money.

In 2005 it was a simple choice – it came down to budget. There was over a £300 difference in price between a 350D and a 30D at the time, so this made all the difference and sorted the beginners and amateurs from the serious hobbyists. This price inequality doesn’t apply today if you’re remotely lucky on eBay, but even if you prefer the security of buying from a reputable company, a 30 or 40D will still only cost £40-50, the choice is obvious.

So why am I looking at a 400D in 2024, then?! Well, the 400D has now devalued to the same price point as those cheap 350D’s a few years back and, for a few extra quid, it does offer those small but not insignificant upgrades over the 350D. Are these factors, coupled with an interesting custom firmware, enough to make it a camera to recommend?

Only one way to find out…

In this review:

Step up or step change?

Canon 400D, ISO 400, 50mm F1.4 – Completely unedited RAW conversion. No tweaks, no sharpening, nothing.

So how do you follow up one of the best selling cameras of all time? The old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the answer.

On the surface, the 400D is nothing more than a point upgrade from the 350D. You get a two megapixel bump in resolution, up to a total of 10MP, the AF system from the 30D, a bigger LCD monitor on the back, Canon’s refreshed status/info page that shows all of your current settings when your eye is not to the viewfinder and a dust cleaning feature.

Believe it or not, sensor dust was a massive talking point in 2006. DSLR users had discovered much to their disgruntlement that when you stop down beyond about F8, you can clearly start to see little out of focus dust particles on your images. Initially, this is nothing that a bit of clone or healing brush tool wouldn’t fix, but for people who changed their lenses a lot or worked in dirty conditions this quickly started to become an issue.

There was a lot of fear generated by DSLR users, mainly on internet forums it has to be said – but also repeated in publications of the time, that a lot could go wrong cleaning your sensor!! This is total and utter drivel. When cleaning a sensor on these cameras you’re not actually getting anywhere near the sensor as there is a huge chunk of glass in front of it called a low pass filter which blocked out infrared light and also served to help avoid patterns appearing in scenes with lots of detail. Having taken several cameras apart to clean up fungus attacks on the sensors, I can tell you now that this glass is tough as nails – you should have absolutely zero fear of cleaning the sensor.

There used to be total fear mongers who would tell you “your camera will be irreparably damaged if something goes wrong during cleaning!” and “you must make sure your battery is fully charged, god forbid it runs out!” I mean… how long were these people expecting to be cleaning for? Your battery could keep the shutter open for hours on end, but common sense seems to have taken a backseat to speculative fear generation back then. Indeed, DSLR’s are a lot more robust than most would believe. Whilst it is of course true that you can kill a device by mistreating it, equally by being careful you can get away with quite a lot – like cleaning the mirrors which you are told never to touch unless you want death to come to your camera.

I’ll finish my cleaning rant with one genuine truth – whatever you do, don’t try and clean a focussing screen. Those things really are a nightmare.

Anyway, back to the sensor dust issue, the introduction of a sensor cleaning mode wasn’t a gimmick. Canon, like all manufacturers of the day, had to find a way to stop people complaining that their beautiful skies were being destroyed by a plague of dust. The vibrating filter and “bit of sticky stuff by the sensor” approach worked quite well and none of my shots showed any signs of dust particles despite the camera apparently being used as a makeshift hammer in its past.

Reviewers at the time praised the 400D for keeping all of the same batteries and accessories as the 350D, therefore making it an obvious an easy upgrade for existing owners. Many did conclude that the 400D was a worthy upgrade over the 350D and something that people should definitely consider. I do question this, especially as a 350D owner at the time this was released – the last thing I wanted was a slightly upgraded version of what I already had. No, what I wanted was a 5D that I couldn’t ever afford in a million years.

The cheapest DSLR right now?

I paid £29 for the cheapest “well used” copy of a 400D on mpb.com. I have noticed that at the very bottom end of the digital camera ladder eBay isn’t much cheaper and definitely more hassle. The sheer convenience and reliability of a well known company wins here, especially as some of my favourite couriers (Yodel) have managed to lose a couple of cameras from eBay recently. I opted for the silver version just to have something a bit different to the bog standard black camera body.

Button paint? What’s that? Also, note the bent flash hot shoe – someone dropped the camera or dropped something on there. I tried to gently prise this back up but unreasonable force is required…

The condition grading on MPB usually refers to the cosmetic condition of the camera and not how much use it has had. One of the most reliable metrics for camera use is the shutter count – although there are plenty of cameras that have happily shot two or three times their rated shutter life, it probably isn’t a good idea to buy one with such high mileage and expect it to last forever. I recently looked up the 5D Mark III on MPB and they’re selling bodies with half a million clicks which is both very impressive and slightly mad at the same time. Buying a camera with that kind of mileage is looking for trouble.

£250 for half a million activations in what is effectively a time bomb seems a little excessive to me.

However, you can’t always find the shutter count of some cameras and if you Google the 400D you’ll find page after page telling you it simply isn’t possible to find the shutter count for it. This isn’t true – the custom firmware “400Plus” will happily read the shutter count for you and display it in camera. I don’t know why Canon buried this information in their earlier cameras, perhaps it was some kind of effort to avoid embarrassing comparisons with other manufacturers should shutters start failing for some reason. Who knows, but by the time the 40D came out they’d relented and this information could be easily read by plugging your camera into a PC with the correct software.

This 400D looks battered, but it has hardly been used.

My 400D has been fired a total of 8500 times which is essentially nothing at all. The shutter count does not match the condition of the body. I know that these silver versions suffer more as the paint wears off buttons and so forth but this thing is a right state cosmetically. The screen too looks as if it has some kind of burn going on – it is hard to photograph exactly what I mean but there’s an oval of dark black “burn” that you can see when the screen is off. Quite how a camera with such little use gets to look this bad is beyond me. That said, it still works perfectly well and for the cheapest built-to-a-budget camera in the range it is quite impressive how much abuse these can take.

About that 400PLUS Firmware hack

Canon 400D, 50mm F1.4, ISO 400

Whilst the 350D and 400D are not crippled in terms of features, there are a couple of things that would be nice to have. Personally, spot metering would be the feature I miss the most, although the “partial” mode on the 400D is pretty close. Fortunately there is a handy firmware hack for the 400D which enables a whole host of new options such as interval or even fully scripted shooting. The “400PLUS” firmware is available here: https://github.com/400plus/400plus/wiki/Firmware-Hack-Installation and installation is very straight forward. The hardest part is probably getting the CF card into a bootable state as the recommended software is designed for a different firmware hack entirely. If you want to undo the changes to your camera than you can to a point – the firmware is 99% removable and you can bypass it loading on boot up if you want to.

Does hacking the firmware make a big difference to the camera? Honestly? No. Not really it doesn’t. It’s a case of if you need it then you’d be grateful for the finer control, the ability to script and so forth, but if you think it’ll transform the camera into something it isn’t or unlock some magical performance then you’re going to be disappointed. This isn’t like the Magic Lantern firmwares that completely changed the game in the very, very early days of video on DSLR’s. As an aside, many of the features seem to be inspired from past Canon cameras with things such as safety shift and multiple meter readings making an appearance.

Still, it’s nice to know the shutter count…

Ergonomics and handling

400D, 50mm F1.4, ISO 400

The 400D shares a nearly identical body design to the 350D and that means it also shares all of its strengths and weaknesses in terms of handling. There was a very subtle redesign of the grip on the 400D and it does make a small but apparent difference. The 350D is horrible to hold in the hand, it is too small and extremely plasticky, it doesn’t have the nice leatherette covering or any kind of decent grippy surface that you expect on a camera. The 400D is the same when it comes to materials, however those very small changes have made it slightly more comfortable to hold. Don’t get excited, though, I still don’t trust this thing in one hand without a strap or sling attached – I tried during this test and just didn’t have the bottle to fully commit.

I much prefer the status screen that Canon switched to on the 400D compared to the awkward combination of a liquid crystal display coupled with a monitor on the back of the 350D. Both serve the same purpose in slightly different ways, but neither are as good as the little LCD on top of the more expensive camera bodies.

Canon 400D, 50mm f1.4, ISO 400

The 400D retains the awkward directional buttons of the 350D which makes changing things like the focus point an infuriating experience. Furthermore, if you select an option and then half press the shutter the camera ignores your changes rather than using the half press as confirmation of your choice. These are small things, but in the compromise between cost and camera size, Canon decided their entry level users would have to do without the excellent combination of joystick and quick control dial that was found on all of their more expensive bodies at the time. I wrote extensively about the controls when I previously used the 350D so if you want to know more, it’s all there.

The shortened version is – capable camera, could and should have done so much better on handling and controls.

The auto focus of the 400D saw quite the upgrade from the 7 point system used in the 350D to the 9 point system borrowed from the 30D used here. Does this make much of a difference? Well, I’d love to say that it does, but it doesn’t really. I can’t help but feel that people got a little bit too excited by the number of auto focus points in DSLR’s throughout the 2000’s. Essentially, is it any quicker to do a centre focus point and recompose or to fiddle with the menu to select a new focus point and compose? Personally, with the stupidity of the system used to select an AF point on the 400D it may as well only have one AF point in the centre because it isn’t worth the time to change it.

Performance wise, it’s very good. It locks focus very quickly but every now and again will let you down. I did have the odd occasion where it just point blank refused to react. Is this a fault of my battered copy? Perhaps, but more than once it just seemed to give up all hope of responding and this was usually after a period of inactivity and on first activation – it was fine afterwards. If I were to level one real criticism at the 400D it would probably be this – every so often the DIGIC II processor I think starts to show its age when you need it the most. A few shots were lost to a lack of responsiveness – not many, but enough to be annoying.

Image quality and results

I had the strangest experience when I first used my 400D, to the point where I thought it was broken. Initially, many of the pictures I’d taken seemed to suffer from odd focus / depth of field issues or in some cases a complete lack of detail where there definitely should be lots. I ended up doing some side by side focus tests with a couple of other bodies and again the initial results were that the 400D was producing soft or fuzzy images. However, upon repeating the tests a second or third time these magically resolved themselves. I’m still not 100% convinced my 400D body is behaving exactly as it should, but I’ve not got another 400D to test it against so this will have to do!

On its own, the 400D stands up quite well. Images are definitely softer than I’d like straight out of the camera and noticeably softer than those which come straight out of a 5D. Image softness out of camera was not unusual with these DSLR’s, though, and often was a result of the low pass filters fitted. Sharpening was the norm and a standard part of the RAW workflow. However, for comparison, if I sharpen an image out of the 5D it is usually at a radius of 1.4 pixels, 30%. In the images out of the 400D it was not uncommon to need to apply 50-70% to achieve the same apparent level of clarity in the image.

Canon 400D, 50mm F1.4, ISO 400, metered at F5.0

Canon 40D, 50mm F1.8 STM, ISO 400, metered at f5.6

I thought it would be interesting to do a side by side comparison with the 40D as on paper they should be pretty much identical in terms of image quality. Both share a 10MP APS-C sensor (I’ve no idea if it is the same part number) and should produce fairly indistinguishable results. My first attempt is above and as you can probably tell the result of this not exactly scientific test was rather unexpected. Despite using a lens of lower quality on the 40D, it nevertheless produced a much clearer, sharper image. The depth of field was significantly different too as you can see with the clarity of background text. Standing in the street waving two cameras in my hands wasn’t the way forward, so I whipped out the tripod, swapped lenses this time to keep things fair and kept both cameras in manual mode so that exposures were identical.

This is what I got:

400D, 50mm F1.4, F8, 1/80, ISO 400 – unedited RAW
40D, 50mm F1.4, F8, 1/80, ISO 400 – unedited RAW

The first thing that struck me is both cameras have inaccurate viewfinders. I knew that neither camera has 100% viewfinder coverage but the amount of extra information included with each shot is not insignificant. Furthermore, the 40D and 300D are out in different ways, they both include extra information in the frame but in different places! As for the RAW files, at full size they look practically identical – perhaps the colours are slightly more saturated from the 40D but it’s well within the margin of error. Things get more interesting when we zoom in to 100%.

400D, 100% crop
40D, 100% crop

Can you tell the difference? Both cameras were focussed on the exact same area for both shots, using the centre focus point. There is absolutely nothing between them on the pencils, both are sharp and detailed, but looking at the purple frog shows the 40D is slightly softer.

Something is going on here. The 400D is definitely making slightly sharper shots straight out of camera, however if you look really closely you can see there’s a noticeable difference in how the cameras are processing the image data – the 40D is definitely less noisy, the image smoother and less grainy than the 400D. It’s subtle, definitely, but the difference is there and it is probably all down to the fact the 40D uses the DIGIC III processor over the second generation in the 400D.

Regardless of side by side comparisons, there’s no arguing that the EOS 400D with a decent lens attached gives really very good image quality. Unless you’re bonkers enough to want the full kit experience and decide to use the awful EF-S 18-55mm then you should be more than happy with the pictures this will take. Just be prepared to add in more sharpening in your RAW converter of choice and you’ll be fine.

It’s easy to get carried away when testing an old DSLR and expect performance on par with the most modern of cameras. This is never going to be the case, especially with the vast improvements in image processors and sensor technology that went on throughout the early to mid 2000’s that saw ever cleaner and more refined images coming out of cameras. Furthermore, later cameras simply have higher dynamic range, using 14 bit or higher bit depths compared to the 12 on the 400D. If you don’t know what this means, it’s simple – the higher the bit depth, the more “levels” of light that the sensor can reproduce, leading to more realistic, higher quality images.

Canon 400D, 50mm F1.4, ISO 400

My final word on image quality from the 400D is that whilst I saw little to no significant difference between it and other APS-C sensor bodies that I have, when compared side by side with the original 5D there was a real and marked difference in colour rendition and detail. Yes, the 5D has two megapixels more in terms of resolution but in the scale of things this is negligible, but the colour rendition of unedited RAW files of the 5D are so much more pleasing straight out of the box. Why? It’s all down to the low pass filter. Full frame quality, innit.

Conclusions, learnings and recommendations

Canon 400D, 50mm F1.4, ISO 400

Now we tackle the inevitable questions – does the 400D still cut it today, should you buy one, is it better than the 350D?

Let’s go in reverse order – yes it’s better than a 350D without a doubt. Not because it produces spectacularly better images and nor does it sound any better with the weird squark noise that the shutter makes, but it is just marginally more user friendly and the dust reduction system definitely works. That alone is worth the £2 price difference between the two cameras.

Does the 400D still cut it today? Yes. I think some people have a hard time getting their head around the idea that you can have a camera that is nearly 20 years old that is capable of producing beautiful, clear, sharp images. The 400D is more than enough camera than most need, it beats any phone camera hands down and it is a great, great learning tool. I also think these cameras are fantastic candidates for turning into IR sensitive cameras.

Do you need more than 10 megapixels? No. Not unless you print above A3 regularly. Do people still print images these days? Nowhere near as much as they used to, I’m sure. So a lot of your extra resolution will go in the bin if you were to buy a camera with a much better sensor. So, in terms of resolution, the 400D is just fine.

Should you buy one then? It sounds like you should?

No. I don’t think so.

If you have a rock bottom budget, you genuinely couldn’t afford any more than £29 for a camera and you desperately wanted to get started with DSLR photography then yes, of course, it’s good enough to get you going and I don’t see any real show stoppers with the 400D being the right choice in those circumstances.

However, the obvious alternative to this is the 40D. It has the same sensor resolution, the same AF set up, a bigger screen again, live view if you really want it, the next generation Digic III processor and ergonomics that are lightyears ahead of the 400D. 40D’s are around £40 commercially, £30-40 on eBay and if you’re really lucky and you don’t mind polishing a turd, you can occasionally get them for £5 like I did… If you don’t care about resolution then a 30D or even 20D would do just fine and they genuinely do go for £25 quite regularly. Any of these cameras give you proper handling, they are just all round more refined and pleasant experiences.

The 400D fixes a few of the faults of the 350D but does not repair the damage done when Canon took the 300D and decided that people didn’t want cameras that were nice to hold any more, people wanted small compact cameras and that… that really was a bad move. These days, at the lower end of the market, you have the luxury of choice and when you have options like these, why settle for second best?

Still, at least Jesus loves the 400D.
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